Blue Valentine: Tanzanite Turns 45



JCK presents a primer on the African gem’s origin, allure, and numerous selling points

When a Maasai herdsman stumbled upon shimmering blue-violet crystals in the foothills of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in 1967, he had no idea they’d soon end up in the showcases at the venerable ­Tiffany & Co. in New York City.

“Despite forming over 500 million years ago, tanzanite was discovered only 45 years ago,” says Hayley Henning, executive director of the Tanzanite Foundation. The nonprofit trade group is celebrating the stone’s anniversary this year with an awareness campaign that culminates at this month’s JCK Las Vegas show. “It is a gemological phenomenon.”

Today, tanzanite remains an easy stone to romance. Originating from a single source and limited in supply—according to geological estimates, only a few decades’ worth of rough remain in the ground—the gem boasts a rare blend of good looks and a compelling backstory. The fact that blue is especially in vogue this year doesn’t hurt. “Since red, blue, and purple tones are hot in fashion, the go-to gem for many has been tanzanite,” says New York City–based jewelry style expert Michael O’Connor.

In honor of the gem’s 45th year, here are five selling points to get your clients to think tanzanite:

While Supplies Last

© Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany & Co. brooch with emerald-cut tanzanite and bow of diamonds in 18k yellow gold; $105,000

Unique geological conditions not found in other gem environments led to the formation of tanzanite in a discrete seven-square-kilometer area, says Bernard Olivier, CEO of TanzaniteOne. While earning his Ph.D. in economic geology, Olivier developed the geological model for tanzanite mining in Merelani, the area in northern Tanzania where the mines are located.

Situated in the gem-rich ruby belt that stretches from northern Mozambique to central Kenya, tanzanite formed at about the same time as the African Rift Valley. “You can’t randomly mine tanzanite—you must understand the complex ore body in which it forms,” says Olivier, describing the sausage-shaped folds, or boudins, in which it is found. Research pegs mine life at current production rates to be about 25 years.

Bill Kalina
TanzaniteOne mine manager Damien Masala holds a violet blue crystal recovered in the company’s main shaft, a quarter-mile underground.

This lack of future supply motivates jewelers such as Steve Moriarty to invest in the stone. “The market for tanzanite will grow, and I’ll be ready when it does,” says the owner of Moriarty’s Gem Art in Crown Point, Ind. “There’s a new generation that does not own important pieces of tanzanite, and the market is about to bloom.” He believes rising demand from China and India will drive the gem further into rarity. “Just look at the impact Asia has had on diamond prices,” he adds.

Made in the Shade

Traces of vanadium give the gem its alluring color. When traditionally heated, as most tanzanite is, brown and yellow tinges burn off to reveal its blue-­violet spectrum, which is stable and permanent. Larger stones tend to display more vivid colors; smaller ones show more pastels. Deeper colors are rare and, thus, more expensive. Shades range from light blues and lilacs to deep indigos and violets, says Henning, who advocates promoting the range of colors to drive more sales.

© Tiffany & Co.
Tiffany & Co. ad introducing Donald Clafin–designed tanzanite rings

Giving tanzanite that special oomph is its multi­dimensional color; in gem lingo, the stone is trichroic, meaning it radiates blue, violet, and burgundy. What’s more, its high dispersion is nearly equal to that of diamond. To capture its optical properties, cut is important. Another plus: Tanzanite tends to be eye-clean.

“Everyone knows what sapphire looks like and many own one, but tanzanite offers a different color. Its uniqueness is attractive to our customers,” says Nichole Cook, manager of Bradley Gough Diamonds in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Designers are equally besotted with the stone. Yehouda Saketkhou of Yael Designs in San Francisco says tanzanite goes well with almost anything in a modern woman’s wardrobe. Los Angeles designer Erica Courtney also loves its versatility—as do her clients: “They enjoy wearing their tanzanite pieces with a pair of jeans and T-shirt as well as a gown.”

An American Tale

Earrings in 18k white gold with 10.15 cts, t.w. tanzanite and 5.29 cts. t.w. diamonds; $57,825; Yael Designs, San Francisco; 415-989-9235; yaeldesigns.com

Though tanzanite is an African gem, its story is undeniably American. The special variety of blue zoisite was dubbed tanzanite by Henry Platt, great-great-­grandson of Charles Lewis Tiffany, after its country of origin and only known source, and promoted in a splashy advertising campaign touting Tanzania and Tiffany as the only two places in the world it could be purchased.

“Since the late 1880s when Charles Lewis Tiffany and George Frederick Kunz were igniting interest in color, finding the rarest gems at Tiffany has been an important part of our history,” says Linda Buckley, vice president of worldwide public relations for the jeweler, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year. “It’s this rich legacy that brought the stone we know as tanzanite to Tiffany.” 

It’s because Tiffany is such an iconic brand that the U.S. market came to know tanzanite so well and is the largest consumer of the gem today, says Henning. Moreover, the Caribbean market, which entertains many American tourists via the cruise industry, has embraced tanzanite for its rich marine hues and helped to spread the word to captive audiences at sea.

Cause for Celebration

In 2001, the American Gem Trade Association ­officially named tanzanite a December birthstone—the only gem added to the birthstone list since the American Gem Society established it in 1912. Unlike other gems, tanzanite lacks a rich, centuries-old folklore. But Henning believes that given its generational icon status, it’s well suited to be an heirloom gift. Fittingly, the color of tanzanite is the color new Maasai moms wear in beads and fabrics to convey health and prosperity to their children and to identify themselves as life creators.

Bill Kalina
Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa; tanzanite is found in its foothills.

“Tanzanite jewelry is a perfect gift for any special occasion like an anniversary or the birth of a child,” says Saketkhou, who features the gem in his new Pacifica collection with diamonds in 18k gold or platinum.

But customers must understand tanzanite is not as durable as a diamond or sapphire, says Cook, noting that the gem is similar to emerald in that it is susceptible to cleavage on impact. (It has a hardness of 6.5 to 7.0 on the Mohs scale.) “We have tanzanite jewelry set only in durable, well-protected mountings,” she says.

Ethically Mined, Ethically Yours

Because tanzanite comes from one source, it’s ideally positioned to be an ethical mine-to-market role model for other gems. For the past decade, the industry in Tanzania has voluntarily applied the Tucson Tanzanite Protocols. Established in 2002 as the trade’s response to unfounded claims linking tanzanite to terrorism, they are a system of warranties to guarantee the legitimacy of gems through the supply chain.

The Tanzanite Foundation also invests in outreach projects such as building schools and a medical clinic, providing school supplies and lunches, and pumping fresh water into the community. It offers manufacturing partners adhering to fair trade practices a “Mark of Rarity” quality seal to accompany merchandise.

“I love supporting tanzanite because it supports the local communities,” says Courtney, who visited the country as a guest of the Tanzanite Foundation in 2008. “Retailers should love that they’re buying a gorgeous gem they can see benefiting the local economy.”

Among the biggest issues for jewelers selling tanzanite—and color in general, says Moriarty—is that they don’t commit to the category: “You need more than one stone to make a presentation.” He advises retailers be competitive by tracking tanzanite prices—and comparison shopping with multiple dealers—at shows like JCK Las Vegas and the AGTA Tucson GemFair.

Wholesaler William Larson of Pala International in Fallbrook, Calif., reports that tanzanite prices have dropped on medium and lighter material. “I’ve seen a lot in the $200 to $350 a carat range that used to be $250 to $400 six months ago,” he says. “The lighter material is inexpensive at $60 to $200 a carat depending on size. Fine material is in the $400 to $600 a carat range, and as always, fine cutting brings up the price.”

And never underestimate the stone’s exotic appeal. “Going to places like Tanzania enhances my credibility,” says Moriarty, who visited the country in 1994 and returned in May. “My customers love it! They still ask me about a trip I took to Brazil 10 years ago.”

More on gemstones on JCKonline.com:
+ True Color: This Season’s Coolest Jewels
+ What’s Selling in Stores This Week: Colored Stones